Women in Computing

March 8th is International Women’s Day, which got me thinking again about why we have so few women programmers (well, in Europe and the USA anyway).

Things didn’t start out this way. Many of the first programmers and pioneers of computing were women. Women like:

Ada Lovelace – who wrote the first algorithm intended to be executed by a computer

Grace Hopper – the first person to design a compiler for a programming language

The history-making Bletchley Park code-breakers.

Katherine Johnson whose contribution to NASA was told in the film “Hidden Figures”

And one of my personal heroes –

Margaret Hamilton who led the team responsible for programming the onboard flight software for the Apollo mission computers and invented the term “Software Engineering”

But, the proportion of women in computing peaked in 1984 and has declined ever since! This is the opposite of the trend in other science, medicine and engineering disciplines. Recent figures I’ve seen, suggest that there may be as few as 15% of people studying computer science subjects, or wanting to work in this field are women and girls. (The gap is worse in Europe and USA, than in India, Malaysia, Africa and China.)

Now I think being a Programmer is a wonderful, challenging, rewarding, rapidly changing, career and I have had the privilege of working with some very talented women. So what is happening in our industry that deters women from joining us?

There are many strongly-held opinions about why this is the case. Misperceptions pervade about what it takes to be a ‘good programmer‘ coupled with a well-established, ‘computer geek stereotype’. 

In 2017, James Damore, a senior engineer at Google, was famously fired in response to his memo claiming that there was a ‘biological reason’ for a lack of female computer scientists. Even a cursory reading of science shows that the differences between men and women, whether cultural or biological, are well within the range of variance for either men or women, so James Damore was talking rubbish, from the perspective of the science, and simply voicing his personal prejudice.

I am convinced that what, if any, differences there are are cultural, we have done this. There is a wide-spread ‘toys for boys‘ culture which has developed in our industry over decades which will be very hard to break down. 

“Computing is too important to be left to men” 

Professor Karen Sparck Jones, pioneering British computer scientist

Is it impossible to change? It’s a difficult problem – but problem-solving is what SW engineering is all about! What can we do more of to provide women with opportunities and to ensure this talent pool isn’t lost to computing? Tackle recruitment practices. Create more positive attitudes to diversity and inclusive organisational culture. Support the work of organisations like “Girls Who Code”. Recognise women role models – women like:

Shafi Goldwasser – the most recent woman winner of the Turing award for her work on cryptography.

…. and, of course, encourage more girls and women to study computer science and learn software engineering.

To mark International Women’s Day, I am offering 

50% off  any of my Continuous Delivery Training & DevOps Courses

Follow this link for more details CD.Training:

I know that gender isn’t the only Diversity issue that needs to be addressed in computing, and Diversity in all it forms is increasingly important particularly as we are now entering the era of AI, algorithms and machine learning. I wrote more generally on Diversity in computing here. However, this article was inspired by International Womens day and inspirational women in computing.

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3 Responses to Women in Computing

  1. Jim Humelsine says:

    The Planet Money podcast produced a really good episode about this topic several years ago. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/17/356944145/episode-576-when-women-stopped-coding

  2. The lack of social diversity in computing causes a lack of methodological diversity and vice versa, see http://www.papert.org/articles/EpistemologicalPluralism.html

  3. Steve says:

    Recognising female contributors is really important imo. People tend to identify with people they… Identify with, meaning (1) women will be more encouraged by seeing female role models and (2) males in the industry will tend to more readily celebrate male role models. This makes a reinforcing loop. If we intend to be fair we need to check our tendency to overlook those contributors whoo are a little unlike us.
    In our office a bright young engineer decided to rename the TV WiFi dongles because they were out of date, and asked for what names he should use. I gave him ada Lovelace, grace hopper and Margaret Hamilton. He only knew who one of the three were.

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